Originally printed in the October 2023 issue of Produce Business.
For the past decade or so, it has been my honor and privilege to present the intricacies of produce retailing to you in the pages of Produce Business. I have tried to shed some light upon the mysteries involved with the business of retailing fresh produce. I am quite sure that, at times, the explanation left something to be desired, but the intent was always to inform the other aspects of the industry why retailing does what it does.
Part of that equation was the eternal struggle between upper management and the best interests of the highly perishable nature and unique marketing opportunity represented by fresh produce. I am certain not all upper management behave in the manner described in the column, however, virtually every retail produce executive has experienced this type of challenge and unreasonable demands to their operation.
The phrase “they just don’t get it!” was coined to show that, in most cases, ignorance of the nature of our business blinded upper management to the actual needs and benefits represented by fresh produce. If, at any time, my inference that upper management was at fault or anyone was offended, I apologize — that was not my intention.
I’ve been extremely fortunate in my 50+ years in the produce industry to have witnessed a period of unparalleled change. Given the amount of change over those past 50 years, this period could certainly be called a “Produce Renaissance.” Some of the monumental and innovative changes to the industry that occurred during this period include: the expansion of variety, the evolution of department size and location, the advent of cut salads, the 5 A Day program and nutritional education, PLU codes and advancing technologies, the establishment of destination categories, and category management, just to name some of the major innovations.
During that period of expansion beginning in the 1980s through 2005, it seemed every week brought some new and innovative product or process to the industry and the general acceptance and rush to implement these concepts throughout the industry.
One of the key leaders in this area during the “Renaissance” was Produce Business magazine. It was born at the beginning of the period, highlighting and promoting the ever-changing and growing produce industry. I met Jim Prevor and Ken Whitaker at the beginning and have been exposed to and worked with them throughout this period.
No discussion of the “Produce Renaissance” would be complete without mentioning the people involved in creating this innovative revolution. Many of them became icons in the industry. I was indeed fortunate to learn and be mentored by many of these experts, including Howard Marguleas, Bob Carey, Chuck Tryon, Tony Misasi, Harold Alston, John Giumarra, Bruce Obink, Ken Morena, and my teacher and mentor, Bob Backovich.
This is not a comprehensive or complete list of all those who have obtained icon status, and I was able to learn from many others. It represents only some of the most influential members and participants in the Renaissance. The contribution made by this generation of produce executives cannot be underestimated and they are responsible for the foundation, creation and success of the produce industry as it now exists.
No list of individuals who helped to push the industry would be complete without a discussion of my contemporaries. This would include executives such as Joe Nucci, Dick Spezzano, Bob DiPiazza, David Marguleas, Bruce and Steve Church, Jan DeLyser, Bryan Silbermann, Mark Hilton, Dave Corsi, Ray Klocke, Chip Murphy, and my closest friend and confidant, Bruce Peterson.
I owe a debt of gratitude to many for sharing their talents and vision with me.
It was our responsibility to take the building blocks and foundation presented to us by the founding fathers of the Produce Renaissance and continue to drive the industry to even higher standards of operation, sales and profit. I will always treasure the time I spent with each of these people, and I am sure I have left out many contemporaries I also interacted with, and only space confines me to limiting the number of people I could call by name. I owe a debt of gratitude to all these people for sharing their talents and vision with me.
This brings me to the present state of the industry, and it is indeed a brave new world. It seems everything is in a state of flux and change is the order of the day.
It is now time to pass the torch to the next generation of executives to have their chance to guide the industry. I know Produce Business will continue to lead in promoting the industry and will find a more-than-suitable replacement for my column to discuss the nuances of produce retailing.
In his farewell speech, Gen. Douglas MacArthur stated that “old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” With apologies to MacArthur, I would like to paraphrase his quote in a similar way. It is said that “old produce executives don’t die, they just lose their influence and fade away.”
I now depart from my beloved industry and wish you well in the coming years, and simply fade away.
Don Harris is a 41-year veteran of the produce industry, with most of that time spent in retail. He worked in every aspect of the industry, from “field-to-fork” in both the conventional and organic arenas. Harris is presently consulting. Comments can be directed to email@example.com.